Diving robots find Antarctic winter seas exhale surprising amounts of carbon dioxide

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August 14, 2018

Data captured by the floats show outgassing near the edge of the Antarctic sea ice. This photo was taken in January, during the Southern Ocean summer, when the floats were deployed. The higher-than-expected outgassing was seen in the stormier winter months.Hannah Zanowski/University of Washington/Flickr

More than 100 oceanic floats are now diving and drifting in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica during the peak of winter. These instruments are gathering data from a place and season that remains very poorly studied, despite its important role in regulating the global climate.
A new study from the University of Washington, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Princeton University and several other oceanographic institutions uses data gathered by the floating drones over past winters to learn how much carbon dioxide is transferred by the surrounding seas. Results show that in winter the open water nearest the sea ice surrounding Antarctica releases significantly more carbon dioxide than previously believed.

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“These results came as a really big surprise, because previous studies found that the Southern Ocean was absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide,” said lead author Alison Gray, a UW assistant professor of oceanography. “If that’s not true, as these data suggest, then it means we need to rethink the Southern Ocean’s role in the carbon cycle and in the climate.”
The paper is published Aug. 14 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
The data was gathered through the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project based at Princeton University. The National Science Foundation, through its Office of Polar Programs, funded the $21 million effort to place dozens of floating robots to monitor the water around Antarctica and learn how it functions in the global climate system.
“This is science at its most exciting — a major challenge …

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